The Necronomicon and Ontological Pressure

Colin Low 2000


When I first began to participate in the Internet newsgroup alt.magick in the late ‘80s, one of the common questions asked was "where can I find the Necronomicon?". Replies to this question were often extremely contemptuous. I found myself identifying more closely with those looking for the book than those denying its existence. I wrote the Necronomicon antiFAQ in the spirit of pure fun, and used all the best techniques of popular historical investigation:  the juxtaposition of fact, supposition and pure nonsense, seamlessly blended and delivered with an air of magisterial authority. I knew it would annoy those who wanted to provide "the truth" about the Necronomicon. In my experience truth is often more about social domination than a process of enquiry.

Why should anyone care about a book that doesn’t exist? From a personal point of view, why should I invest energy in a literary invention? I don’t have an interest in speaking Klingon, I don’t practice writing in Tolkien’s Elvish. Why bother with the Necronomicon? People have written to me on many occasions after reading the Necronomicon AntiFAQ, and although I have always explained that it is a spoof, I have over the years provided a patchwork quilt of elaborations on why it is not entirely a spoof. This essay is an attempt to do properly what I previously did informally - explain some of my opinions regarding the Necronomicon.

The most commonly asked question about the book is: is it real? This is a complex question to answer. All books are products of consciousness. There are no books in the natural world. There is no canonical representation for books: our earliest literature comes on clay tablets, we have lots of works on papyrus and vellum, and while most books today are produced today on paper, a significant number are now being published directly on the Internet. Is the modern paperback edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace the same book as the original edition printed in Russia? In what way the same? In what way different? There is no simple reality test for books. Editions of books sometimes have a tangible, material existence in this world, but the books themselves exist somewhere else.

Ah! You exclaim, what sophistry, that is not the sort of reality I meant. I meant … did the Necronomicon exist before its first mention by H. P. Lovecraft? Is there an authentic grimoire of that name, and did Lovecraft use it to embellish his fiction?

There is no grimoire of that name. However, there are many, many grimoires, so what is it about the Necronomicon that makes it so especially interesting? Why not settle for the Key of Solomon, or the Picatrix, or the Grimorium Verum, or the Grimoire of Honarius, or any of the other well-known works devoted to demonology and communication with non-human entities? I believe there are good reasons why these works do not satisfy the modern mind, so if the Necronomicon is "not real", how is it possible for it to be more interesting and relevant to the modern mind than these "real" works.

Let us suppose we were able to identify the ingredients that make the Necronomicon so intriguing, and created a book that not only contained these ingredients but expanded on them in an intelligent way. Would this book be a real Necronomicon, or would it be a spoof?

To give an example, suppose you were interested in flying through the air, and a fictional work of Jules Verne describes the Aeronauticon, the definitive lost work on flying machines. Would a modern engineering text on aeroplanes meet the need? If we are only interested in the end (flying) and not the means (the book) then I would say that the modern engineering text would in every sense be a fulfilment of the promise of the fictional work, and if it was printed as the Aeronauticon then it would be a spoof only in a trivial sense. The same would be true of lost works of geography or history; any books that described substantially the same geography or the same history could hardly be called spoofs. A book collector would think differently however, as would academics interested in the text as text.

This suggest that although the Necronomicon did not exist prior to Lovecraft, any work whose contents are aligned with the book Lovecraft thought he was writing about could be considered to be "a real Necronomicon". It would suffer the disadvantage that it would be written by people. But then all books are written by people … aren’t they? This is the nub of the matter. For some reason a book called the Necronomicon written before H.P. Lovecraft would be much more interesting than a book called the Necronomicon written after H.P. Lovecraft, regardless of contents. The first one would be real and the second one would be a spoof.

Suppose we could identify the important themes contained in Lovecraft’s fiction as really occurring in actuality, and created a grimoire based around these actually occurring themes. Would that be a spoof? This sounds a lot like the Aeronauticon example.

The remainder of this essay is an attempt to add flesh to the questions raised in this introduction, and although I will not attempt to persuade you that the Necronomicon is real, I may persuade you that there is much more to it than can be found in the pages of H. P. Lovecraft.

Literary Births

As the most common question about the Necronomicon is "Is it real?", then for no other reason than malicious enjoyment, it is worth looking at esoteric and religious works in general to see how they register on the reality scale.

Let us begin with the New Testament of the Bible. This is composed of many independent documents. In most cases we do not know the authors, when they were written, or where they were written. We do not know whether most of the individuals mentioned actually existed, and in cases where we have some independent evidence, there are errors of fact. The texts themselves have been subjected to considerable copying. There is also evidence that they were loaded with themes intended to appeal to cosmopolitan Greeks, and may represented little that is authentic about a man that may or may not have existed.

Christian hagiographies (lives of saints) are laughable. These were often cynical political documents intended to promote the interests of abbeys or orders at a time when milking the credulous general public had been elevated to an art form.

Misattribution of authorship was common and often deliberate in Roman times. The work of a Neoplatonist was misrepresented as a Christian saint, and so The Celestial Hierarchies of Dionysus became, over many centuries, the model for the Christian universe and the prototype for Dante’s influential Divine Comedy. It is pure, late-Roman paganism. More pagan Neoplatonism found its way into Christianity due to an Arab copyist who attributed the work of Plotinus to the more respectable Aristotle.

My personal favourite example is the Zohar. In orthodox Jewish circles this has become one of the most important works in Judaism, to be studied in parallel with the Torah and the Talmud. It is a foundation text for Kabbalah. It purports to be the work of a Rabbi who lived in Palestine during the Roman occupation, but even at the time of its "discovery" in the late thirteenth century CE there were claims that it was a forgery. Modern scholars concur that it is a forgery. A second example, the Bahir, another foundation text, also purports to have been written in Palestine, but there is no evidence to support this claim, and its first documented appearance was one thousand years later in France.

The Book of Mormon is a good one. Joseph Smith claimed an angel called Moroni showed him the book written on gold plates buried in a hill near his house in New York State. He transcribed it with the aid of magic spectacles. This is slightly more incredible than Mohammed, the Koran, and the angel Gabriel, for there is no evidence that Mohammed needed magic spectacles.

Channelled works are always worth shoving under the reality meter. Like it or not, a large proportion of the books in the average New Age bookstore owe their authenticity to ideas that come from channelled works, in particular the infamous Madame Blavatsky. Her ideas may live on, trudging their increasingly weary way from New Age pot-boiler to New Age pot-boiler, but the world has largely forgotten the scandal of the Coulomb affair. In the words of the Society for Psychical Research, referring to Blavatsky’s imposture, "we think that she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious and interesting impostors of history".

What about other channelled works? If I write a book and claim that it is the channelled writing of the Taoist master Hu Flung Dung, is it more authentic if   I genuinely believe it to be the work of Hu Flung Dung? The fact is that I wrote it regardless of what I tell you about its authorship.

Channelled works have been hugely influential in the occult scene (see ), and have an aura of credibility that would be completely lacking if the same ideas were published with a preface stating "and by the way, I just made all this stuff up". Is this gigantic outpouring of blather checked for mutual consistency? Of course not - consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. If we take the simple view that the authors really are the authors, regardless of how they personally portray the situation, then there is bound to be something worthwhile in there, but it is exceedingly hard work wading through the pigshit looking for pearls.

What about less subtle forms of misrepresentation? There was a time when bookshops and libraries were replete with works by the Tibetan master Lobsang Rampa, or the Hindu sage Yogi Ramacharaka. Both English.

"Genuine" grimoires are hardly ever what they claim to be. The reality is that grimoires were an expression of an age in which the hold of Christianity was weakening, there was a large publishing industry, and they were printed to be sold. Same story as always. Caveat emptor.

One of the cardinal expressions of modern gnosticism is the writing of Carlos Castenada. In the earlier books Castenada at least tips his hat at shamanism, but as the series progresses and the explanatory structure and metaphysic are revealed, Don Juan and his party are revealed as the quintessential modern gnostic magicians using knowledge and power to escape to a reality beyond death. Fake? Not fake? Do we care? Whether fiction or not, Castenada provides yet another modern reframing of the gnostic tradition and his writing is often very lucid and perceptive.

To conclude this section, religion and occultism aren’t the occasional victims of imposture … they are absolutely saturated in it from start to finish. Imposture, misrepresentation, exaggeration, and pure fabrication are the foundation stones of religion. It is virtually a constant of human nature that occult texts require fabulous origins and exotic and unverifiable histories. This is one of the reasons I find questions about the authenticity of the Necronomicon so hilarious. If it was authentic, it would be the beginning of a completely new genre.

The Grimoire

The Necronomicon goes some way outside the normal parameters for a grimoire. Although we know very little in detail about its contents, we can deduce some things from the contexts in which Lovecraft mentions it. It is partly historical, in that it relates circumstances that occurred aeons before the human race. It is partly geographical and ethnographical, in that it describes places and races beyond the bounds of human civilisation. It is operational in that it can be used to carry out various procedures, such as summoning non-human entities.

In spirit it is not unlike the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet series of guide books, only the places are off-world, the locals have tentacles, the history goes back several ice ages, and the procedures are as complex and dangerous as summoning a taxi in Tehran.

The average historical grimoire is not so compendious. It did not have to be. The grimoire took for granted culture, religion, metaphysics, cosmology and causality, and concentrated on operational procedures which were considered to be valid at the time it was written. One has to take on board a huge amount of baggage (acquired from other sources) before they begin to make sense, and this is one reason why they are of marginal interest to most modern occultists - culture, religion, metaphysics, cosmology and causality were thrown out with the rest of the garbage over the course of the 20th century.

It is important to grasp this. A massive change in popular consciousness was begun by the Protestant reformation and continued during the 17th and 18th centuries, led by thinkers such as Descarte, Locke, Hume, and Kant. The idea of a purposefully designed external cosmos inhabited by intelligent powers who provide the moral, ethical and religious framework for human existence, collapsed. In its place grew the idea of the "disenchanted cosmos", a dead mechanism of contingent relations which could be studied and eventually manipulated using the techniques of scientific investigation. Human beings were no longer bit players in a huge Dantean cosmology; they were the self-defining centre of existence. The religious works that formed the bastions of the old viewpoint, such as the Bible, were made available to the general public and subjected to various kinds of criticism. We now know that the Bible was written comparatively late in antiquity, much later than the events it purports to describe. There are several layers of authorship and revision. The specific selection of books included in the standard edition left out many others of comparable antiquity. It was written to support the tribal interests of specific groups of people living in a small geographic area. It includes mythic material from all over the Middle East, including material we now have in much older versions (such as the legend of Noah). In other words, it is only a book.

The shift to the self-defining human subject, and the loss of authority of traditional religious texts, has almost entirely destroyed the background needed to take the old grimoires seriously. It is worth taking a look at their broad form however, just in case you believe something weird and wonderful is lurking out there.

There are two main types of grimoire. There are grimoires descended from the Hellenistic traditions of the late Roman empire, and there are grimoires descended from the Christian traditions of the middle ages. The differences are often minor, as both types contain many common assumptions about how the universe is constituted (and after all, Christianity is directly descended from the Hellenistic traditions of the late Roman Empire). By Hellenistic I mean the remains of the empire created by Alexander the Great, centred on the major Greek speaking cities spread in an arc around the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, from Turkey in the north to Egypt in the south. This world was cosmopolitan and moderately stable for over a thousand years, and became the intellectual and economic heart of the Roman empire in late antiquity.

I cannot attempt to do justice to the underpinnings of magic at this time, but I will mention several core ideas:

These beliefs reached Western Europe in two variants. The Arab conquest of the Middle East resulted in many of these magical beliefs being translated out of local languages such as Greek, Coptic, Syriac, and Aramaic, into Arabic, in which form they reached Europe during the early middle ages. There were also strong Jewish magical traditions coming from the same area which spread throughout the Roman Empire as a result of the Jewish Diaspora. The result is that the more interesting later grimoires (for example, The Key of Solomon) have elements drawn from both Arabic (i.e. Hellenistic) and Jewish sources, with names of power that can be traced all over the middle east. The less interesting grimoires (in my opinion) are based on later Christian cosmology, and use Christian names and rituals to dominate demons. The Black Mass demonstrates the final triumph of Christian orthodoxy in that it is entirely Christian in conception.

Lovecraft’s Abdul Alhazred lived during the earliest part of the Arab conquest. Had he actually lived, he would have known elder folks who were still Christian or Pagan. No distinctive Moslem magic existed at that time. Alhazred came from the Yemen, which was largely Christian, and it is likely his parents would have been Christian. There is nothing about the setting or the time that makes it particularly interesting, other than the fact that there was a new group of conquerors trying to get civilised in a hurry, and they were prepared to devote significant economic resources to the process.

The most important magical influences at that time were:

In other words, there is a huge amount of information about the general form of magical traditions descending from antiquity, and nothing that is Lovecraftian. Not even slightly Lovecraftian. I will now explain why.

Lovecraft the Modern

Although the writing of H.P. Lovecraft is associated with fantasy, weird horror, and the supernatural, it is well known that Lovecraft was down-to-earth in his own personal beliefs, taking a strong and active interest in popular science. He did not subscribe to occult beliefs, vigorously opposed occult beliefs, and can be summed up as rational, materialistic, scientific and atheistic. When I said there was a massive change in popular consciousness which began in the 17th. and 18th. centuries, then magical grimoires are at one pole, and the worldview of H. P. Lovecraft is at the other.

I believe that Lovecraft’s worldview has contributed directly to his success as a writer. The five thousand year old cosmologies of antiquity, preserved in part by Christianity, have fallen apart. What Erik Davis calls "the neoplatonic highrise" of planes and levels and hierarchies of being has been dynamited by rationality. It is difficult to believe simultaneously in creationism and Darwinism. The old authorities have gone.

But the traditional grimoire bases its every procedure on the worldview of these dynamited authorities, and so they also become so much junk and waste paper.

What Lovecraft has done is reframe many traditional occult and mythic themes according to his own modern sensibilities, and by doing so he bases them on the new authorities of rationality, science and the self-defining human being of modern philosophy. He restores legitimacy to old myths.

When I first read Lovecraft I was not aware of this, but I had absorbed the modernist worldview through my pores and I immediately warmed to the bleak, alien, terrifyingly inhuman cosmos of Lovecraft’s fiction because I knew it was true. I had been entertained by Dennis Wheatley and similar fictional nonsense, but no part of me had been even slightly convinced by a cosmos based around a Dantean medieval cosmology of Heaven and Hell. My planet earth was located in a galaxy filled with ten billion suns, and there were billions of similar galaxies out there. For me life was not the result of a magical act by a creator god, but a physical process as pervasive as gravity, a natural physical process that would take place anywhere in the middle ground between too much energy and too little energy. Not too hot, not too cold, just like Mummy Bear’s porridge.

I didn’t need to be told there was strange alien life out there. I knew it in my bones. And I knew there were histories that weren’t human histories, and I knew there were geographies that weren’t human geographies, and I knew there was technology sufficiently advanced to seem like magic. And I knew that at some point in time a human being would try to write down some of the histories, and the geographies, and the technologies, and the conditions for doing so simply did not exist in the past. When I read Lovecraft I applauded his boldness, his willingness to set his horror fiction in the new modern worldview, and when he invoked the Necronomicon to give weight to his stories I gradually became aware of the kind of book it was. It was a work of modern gnosticism.

The Gnostic Trail

Urban civilisation on a large scale creates conditions of life which are unnatural and oppressive for many people. This is true today, and it was true during the late Roman Empire. The Stoics chose to endure this oppression with dignity, arguing that while no oppression can touch the divine spark in each person, we can debase it when we let ourselves be manipulated and terrorised by evil men. Christians chose to accept the indignities and oppression of this world in favour of the World To Come. The Gnostics saw it all as a big cosmic mistake and wanted to break out of prison.

The word "gnostic" comes from the Greek word for knowledge. Gnostics believed that this world is the creation of evil and misguided beings, but each human being contains a divine spark which (for various complex reasons) has descended from a higher world than this one. By using occult knowledge it was possible to ascend through the levels of being dominated by the demonic rulers of this world, and return the source of all being.

Modern science is deeply gnostic. The disenchanted universe of Newtonian science is in many ways more alienating than the demonically constructed prison of traditional gnosticism. It is mechanical and utterly dead. There is a direct correspondence between the occult knowledge and procedures of gnosticism, and the engineering and technology that are the outcome of natural science, and the big difference is that where the traditional gnostic sought to escape the world, the modern scientist plans to change it. Nothing is out of bounds. Everything can be fixed for the better.

The gnostic impulse did not end with the Roman Empire. It appears to be a constant of human nature. Some people set off with machetes to explore the material, and some people set off with incantations and words of power to explore the immaterial. The gnostic magician is a very different kind of person from the person who wants to win the heart of a lady, or curse a neighbour’s cattle. The goals tend to be larger. In personal temperament the gnostic magician tends to be rational, curious, questioning. The 16th. century gnostic mage Dr. John Dee, for example, was a widely respected authority on many sciences.

The scientific method treats the universe as dead. It is not entirely chaotic, and we observe regularities and consistency in the way it behaves. We propose explanations for why it behaves in these ways, and select good explanations on the basis of elegance, simplicity and consistency with experimental evidence. This body of explanation, often expressed in the form of analytic mathematical relationships, forms the basis for scientific knowledge and technology.

The gnostic method treats the universe as alive. One invokes, and then asks questions.

A moment’s thought will show that this is not an entirely stupid procedure. The first method is applicable to a universe in which the only form of life is human beings, and the only knowledge is what we currently have. The second procedure is applicable to a universe in which there are other forms of life with advanced knowledge, and while one is entitled to question the efficacy of invocation as an epistemological technique, it is nevertheless a technique with a long history of use.

Every educated person knows how little knowledge we validate at first hand. Almost everything in our personal education comes from other people, so asking non-human entities for knowledge is a valid and sensible way to go about things. Dr. John Dee expresses this very clearly:

All my life time I had spent in learning: but for this forty years continually, in sundry matters, and in divers Countries, with great pain, care and cost, I had from degree to degree, sought to come by the best knowledge that man might attain unto in the world: And I found (at length) that neither any man living, nor any book I could yet meet withal, was able to teach me these truths I desired, and longed for: And therefore I concluded with myself, to make intercession and prayer to the giver of wisdom, as I might know the natures of his creatures; and also enjoy means to use them to his honour and glory.

The result of Dee’s desire to obtain knowledge directly from divine sources was the extraordinary communications obtained by himself and Edward Kelly over a period of years from entities claiming to be angels.

The 20th century magician Aleister Crowley also shared with Dee a desire to gain knowledge directly from non-human sources. I have explored elsewhere the fascinating links between Dee, Crowley and Lovecraft, and it is worth summarising some of the main points.

Lovecraft’s myth of the Great Old Ones has much in common with the ancient belief, recorded in the Book of Enoch, that human beings were given many kinds of occult and forbidden knowledge by fallen angels who coupled with women to create demonic entities (Lovecraft recycles this legend as The Dunwich Horror). These abominations were cleansed from the Earth by the first flood (Noah’s) and the rebel angels were imprisoned in another dimension awaiting a time of judgement. This legend overlaps with the Book of Revelations, which tells what happens to the rebel angels and humanity at the end of time.

There is a very substantial identity between the chief of the rebel angels Samael, the arch demon Choronzon who appears in Dee’s angelic transcripts and who plays such an important role in the magical experiments of Crowley, and the entity Yog Sothoth in Lovecraft’s writing. There are some very weird coincidences, such as Choronzon (speaking through the mouth of Crowley) quoting from gnostic texts that had neither been found or translated at that time.

There are interesting parallels between the return of the Olde Ones, as described by Lovecraft, and the conditions of the New Aeon, as described in Crowley’s Liber Al vel Legis.

I know there is strong resistance among scholars of H.P. Lovecraft to see him placed in the company of men he would have regarded as seriously round-the-bend. I will be charitable and say that Lovecraft and Crowley lived at the same time, they were exposed to the same culture and influences, and it is not surprising that there are similar elements in their work. On the other hand, while I do not subscribe to Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious in fullness, I do observe that ideas and fashions erupt into popular consciousness in a way that is not always easy to understand. I am a researcher, it is my job to create new things, and one of the most irritating aspects of the job is how often the same good idea occurs all over the world at approximately the same time. I do not know whether "morphic resonance" is a good theory or a bad theory (I am unimpressed by Sheldrake’s methods) but it is a convenient name for something that appears to happen.

The point here is that there is a genuine tradition of gnostic magic which has existed for fifteen hundred years, and it has not only survived into the twenty-first century, it is doing very well. The reason is that its foundation is the quest for first-hand knowledge, the rejection of unverifiable dogma, and its spirit of enquiry is not at all threatened by science or technology. Although Lovecraft would not have personally associated himself with this tradition, there are elements in his work which connect him whether he would have liked it or not. The Lovecraftian protagonist is someone exposed to a reality outside of the human sphere, a seemingly inchoate reality that is utterly foreign to human consciousness, terrifying, often malign. It is the place the modern gnostic magician attempts to go to voluntarily.

The Once and Future Grimoire

I have already stated that I believe one of the most important reasons behind the success of H. P. Lovecraft is his reframing of old mythic ideas in the light of a modern consciousness of reality that is rational, materialistic, and to a significant degree, nihilistic. I would guess that most people would not think of themselves as nihilistic, but a short stay on any Internet newsgroup dealing with religious or occult matters will show how unfashionable it is to have strong beliefs. The fashionable post-modern acceptance of diversity can accommodate statements of the form "you have your beliefs and I have mine", but a moment’s thought will show how utterly nihilistic this is. If our beliefs are only matters of personal opinion about which we feel so weakly that we dare not attempt to persuade another, then can we genuinely claim to believe in anything?

This nihilism is reflected in attitudes to occult sources. The postmodern magician does not have grimoires, rituals, liturgy, and invariant procedures. Oh, we have these things, but we don’t believe in them. We apply the universal doctrines of consumerism and free choice to select the grimoires, rituals and liturgies that best reflect our current mood and understanding.

I have taken part in occult newgroups and mailing lists for over a decade, watched tens of thousands of message fly by, and the overwhelming mood is anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical, and consumerist. People want to choose. If an occult system imposes requirements that does not suit their temperament and mood, they will choose something different. This attitude is utterly different from the milieu in which grimoires were originally composed.

I have in my bookcase my father’s workshop manual. It details the properties of metals, various commercial alloys, safety procedures, measurements, tools and care of tools, and common procedures such as cutting, heat treatments, drilling, grinding, lathing and so on. It is in every sense a grimoire. I could shop around for ten years, read my way through every workshop manual on the planet, and I am not going to find one that makes it easier to work iron. My father’s workshop manual may be old, but it is still authoritative in that metals are still the same, and the apprentice fitter still has to learn the same basic things about metals, tools, measurement, safety, and basic procedures.

There are no magical grimoires like this any more. I have corresponded with many people who have used the Simon Necronomicon as a grimoire, and far from being deluded fools, these are fully paid-up post-modern magicians who openly state that it is "as good as any other". They know it is a modern pastiche, and they still use it. This is the modern consciousness of occult sources and grimoires, that there are no authorities and the source of efficacy lies in the operator, not the source text.

I believe the importance of the Necronomicon is twofold:

The problem with all the old grimoires is that they are doubly damned: they are no longer authoritative, and they don’t reflect modern consciousness. This is why it is possible to be 100% positive that no Necronomicon existed in the past - any Necronomicon written in the past would reflect the consciousness of that time, and would turn out looking like the grimoires we already have in abundance.

In order for a Necronomicon to be conceptually possible we (as a culture) have to move away from the nihilism and consumerism of the last fifty years. We have to be capable of believing in our bones that a new formulation or reframing of magic is possible, and that the book (any book) which tells it how it is, is authoritative in precisely the same sense as my father’s workshop manual. We stop living with diversity, we start living with … reality. Is such as step possible, or even desirable?

It is part of the arrogance of the human race that each generation projects its views and prejudices as the ultimate in sophistication. The post-modern consciousness of magic may seem sophisticated today, but will it seem sophisticated tomorrow? I doubt it. But, you object, we don’t want to go back to religious fundamentalism, to the irrational projection of human beliefs onto the fabric of reality.

Well, in that case, we won’t. We’ll go forward into the understanding that reality is genuinely and objectively much larger than the human race, and the human mind is a very inadequate instrument with which to grasp its complexities. In other words, there comes a point where dealing with the complexities of reality requires a step, not into rigidity of belief, but into humility, into the understanding that it isn’t all arbitrary, that we can’t just make it up as we go along.

In the past, beliefs about the universe were part of the social and power structure of society. They were arbitrary in the sense that they were dogmatic, they weren’t tested against reality. They were typically used by the ruling classes to justify the structure of society. We are going through a transition. We are becoming to a significant extent a society of technicians.

Technicians have always had to deal directly with reality. The stonemason, the carpenter, the weaver, the blacksmith, the potter, the wheelwright, the cooper, the printer - these are the people who created the material comforts of human society. It is interesting that speculative freemasonry, an ark for so much occult tradition, arose from a technical craft. Technicians cannot afford the attitude that it is all arbitrary and you can make it up as you go along. You can’t. Anyone who thinks has no experience of mastery in a craft.

For most of my professional career I have worked in computer science. I regard myself as part scientist, but mostly technician. I work with reality in a very direct way; if I cannot simulate required behaviour accurately then my work is useless. Computer science is an exemplar of the post-modern craft, a craft where there appears to be a large amount of arbitrariness, but external requirements make it difficult and intellectually demanding. To give an example, suppose we want a pool of computers to share a task in such a way that if any computer fails, the rest of the pool will continue to complete the task. There are many poor solutions to this problem, but in general the problem is extremely difficult to solve. As an acquaintance of mine often likes to say, "For every complex problem there is a simple solution …. and it’s wrong".

The growing dependence of society on technology is changing the social status of technology experts and technicians in general, and their views, and more importantly, their receptivity to certain kinds of idea, are going to become more important. What kinds of idea? This discussion may seem to have wandered a long way from the Necronomicon, but if you are curious to know what form the definitive post-modern grimoire might have, please bear with me.

At any point in time, human understanding of reality is like a crazy house. The pieces don’t go together properly. The reason is that advances in one area can take time to impact another area. The last decade has seen huge advances which have not yet percolated through to popular awareness. This essay is not the place to go into detail, but I will try to outline some of the changes of understanding that have taken place.

The first huge change in understanding is the realisation that simple laws do not lead to simple systems. This is the phenomenon of emergence. The dead, mechanical universe of linear Newtonian mechanics is not the universe we live in. Simple laws lead to complex systems, and when complex systems interact, even more complex systems result. My writing this essay is as much a physical process as sunspots on a star. Could you have predicted what I was going to say? You wouldn’t be reading it if you could.

The fact of emergence totally destroys the arrogance exhibited at turn of the nineteenth century, that all physical laws were known and the job of physicists was just to measure the physical constants a little more accurately. Knowing a few laws tells us nothing about the really important things going on in the universe. There are two regimes in physics where the maths is easy: the really hot and disordered, and the really cold and ordered. Everything in between is a nightmare, a no go area only accessible through computer simulation. The problem with simulation is that a simulation is necessarily less complex than the system being simulated, so simulation is always going to have trouble with emergence, which in some senses is a parasitic phenomenon.

This also leads directly to the question: what are the physical limits to simulation? To what extent do known physical laws allow us to use physical devices (computers) to simulate the behaviour of other physical systems? The answer to this question has already spawned the new science of quantum computation. It appears that the ability to simulate is a profound physical property of the universe, an Hermetic maxim of self-similarity that is the precondition for what we call life. The implications go beyond anything I can cover here - I refer the reader to an extraordinary book, The Fabric of Reality by physicist and winner of the 1998 Dirac Prize, David Deutsch.

A second radical shift in perspective is the collision of maths, computer science, and physics, and the reframing of physics in terms of information. This is a huge shift. We are still burdened by classical dualistic thinking that separates matter from spirit, and overloads matter with many profoundly negative connotations - dead, mechanical, predictable etc. A reductive explanation of human consciousness in terms of material science should not be a threatening exercise, but it is, because it translates the genuine magic of consciousness to a dead realm. The reframing of physics in terms of information brings matter to consciousness instead of taking consciousness to matter. It makes no difference to the details of physics or to consciousness, but it makes a huge difference in the way we represent to ourselves what is going on.

An important aspect of any treatment of information is the distinction between signal and carrier. The carrier is what we use to represent the signal - semaphore flags, magnetic domains, dots and dashes on paper, modulated radio waves and so on. A signal can be passed through many kinds of transformation that preserve its essential form, although its actual physical representation can be very different in each case. A related problem occurs in computer science, where a program is passed through several different forms (using compilers and assemblers and linkers for example) and we want to prove that essential features (its correctness for example) have been preserved during these transformations. In both cases we have something which can only be represented physically, but which has no canonical physical representation. We, human beings, have some notion of what is being preserved throughout various physical transformations, but it is extraordinarily difficult to express what it is that is being preserved. The best formulation of this in my experience is what is known as category theory, or universal algebra. This is the study of mathematical transformations which preserve essential structure, so that we can show that two mathematical systems have similar properties even though they appear to be completely different. This is why I raised the example of the paperback translation of Tolstoy in my introduction; how can we say it is the same book as the original Russian edition? How much of Tolstoy does it preserve? How little? These may seem like irritating questions, but they are important to people who work with information. You may not care about Tolstoy, but do you care how the sound of your favourite musician has been doctored when converted to MP3 format, or how DVD reduces the range of possible colour values in a movie? (And incidentally, compression is simulation).

The importance of reframing physics in terms of information is that the duality between signal and carrier (an artefact of the older duality of spirit and matter), disappears. The stuff that matters to people, the products of consciousness which in abstract we call information, inhabit the same realm as matter, which is also information. We are approaching a non-dualistic explanation where there is less tension between matter and consciousness. If the nature of matter (and that is a loaded word) is as profound and mysterious and open-ended as anything to be found in mysticism and magic, then there is no threat to human beings in saying that life and consciousness are emergent properties of physical systems.

The convergence of mathematics, computer science, physics and genetics is leading to a radical reformulation in which human consciousness is seen as an emergent property of an open-ended system. We simply cannot say where this system is going, what its limits are, or what end-point, if any, it is capable of reaching. We are at the beginning of a huge adventure.

Having taken a huge diversion I have arrived back at H. P. Lovecraft. This new world of human exploration into the deep strangeness of existence is the world of the Lovecraftian protagonist. It is a world where the old duality of matter and consciousness has gone, and new mystic-mage-technologists will ignore the distinction - mysticism is the exploration of consciousness, and technology is the exploration of matter, and when the two combine, so do the disciplines.

One thing which will not change is the human dimension. Technology makes new kinds of thought - and hence new kinds of exploration - possible, and exploration creates new experiences and new kinds of people. I do not mean that technology creates new drugs and new drugs make new experiences possible. The magic of human creativity goes far beyond drug use, and although the two occasionally intersect, usually they do not. I mean that at each stage of human history certain kinds of thought have not been possible, and it is through our symbiotic relationship with the physical world that we grow our ability to think radically new thoughts, and so change our experience of living.

People who are looking for the Necronomicon today are looking for these radical truths, for these radical new dimensions of experience. It is a big universe. There is a lot going on. Being grounded on planet Earth is more than a little frustrating. The Necronomicon that people are looking for is the grand grimoire of the new relationship between human beings and the rest of the universe. It hasn’t been written yet. It will be.


Many people want to know whether the Necronomicon is a real book. I have in the past done a great deal to confuse this issue, and this has caused irritation to many people who want a simple linear answer to a simple linear question. The intent of this essay is to show that it is not a simple linear question.

One difficulty I have is that as a practising magician and industrial researcher for over thirty years I have learned that some ideas have a kind of ontological pressure behind them. It is like holding an acorn and asserting that the oak tree exists. A statement of this kind may violate many of the common sense rules of language, but for me this shows that common sense language lacks subtlety of expression, and there are many kinds of useful statement I would like to make without a huge pedagogical preamble. The oak tree does exist in potentia, and the real argument is about how we rank existence in potentia versus bark and bird’s nests. It is in precisely this sense that I am prepared to state that the Necronomicon is a real book.

This is not the kind of answer that many people want to hear however so I have made the more satisfactory argument that the Necronomicon hinted at from the contextual framework of Lovecraft’s fiction is not a book that could have existed in the ancient world. It is an outcome of Lovecraft’s modern consciousness of the universe. It has attained a powerful mythic credibility precisely because it squares the circle: in a modern world where no grimoire has authority, the Necronomicon has this awe-inspiring authority while still being a grimoire. It is like the Cretan who stated that all Cretans are liars. An essential aspect of its authority is that it is content free - had Lovecraft provided any substantial content other than the vague hints we have, we would tear it to pieces like any other supposed work of authority.

I believe a book like the Necronomicon could not have existed in the past, and cannot exist in the present. It will exist in the future.

The reason I believe this is that my radar as a professional researcher tells me that a new enlightenment is in the offing. The first enlightenment transformed our relationship with the universe, so that instead of a living cosmos maintained by a divine hierarchy of being we found ourselves in a dead machine to be investigated using scientific method.

The new enlightenment is a non-dualist understanding of matter, life, and human consciousness that transcends to vocabulary of the past, where the key concepts are emergence, simulation and information. The reductive, mechanistic language of mid-twentieth century science will be discarded. The universe will once more become a place of unfathomable mystery and complexity, where life is not a frail accident but one of the most important physical processes, alongside gravity and stellar fusion. It is a new gnosticism without the inherent dualism of the past. In this vast, utterly alien, terrifying, unfathomably complex universe, Lovecraftian protagonists will journey and record their travels and experiences. One thousand years from now someone will be able to read the Necronomicon. Not a spoof, nor a fabrication... it will be the book Lovecraft intuitively grasped.

Someone alive today may be its author. In potentia of course.

Further Reading

Postmodernity, David Lyon, Open University Press, 1994.
You don’t need to be a French intellectual with an exquisitely tortured grasp of language to understand postmodernity. All you need to do is visit Amerika. This little book costs less however.
The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsch, Penguin Books 1997.
Deutsch maintains the way to find better explanations for reality is to combine our best current explanations and take them seriously. The result is the kind of book that begs to be read if only to admire the incisive rationality of the author. A superb book from the winner of the 1998 Dirac Prize.
Hegel, Charles Taylor, Cambridge University Press, 1975.
There are many ways to approach the radical changes in human thought following on from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. From a personal point of view, I have found this book exceptionally useful.

Return to Essays